As parents, we all want our children to be successful in life. We want them to find what they are good at and pursue that, perhaps even picking up a few accolades along the way. But most of all, we want our children to find something they love doing. But how can we help our children discover their natural gifts? Additionally, how can we nurture our child’s unique abilities so they can shine?
Your little one might love dressing up in her fancy clothes and singing along with her favourite pop artist. However, she might not recognise her penchant for performing. You might even notice your preschooler building elaborate structures with blocks. Your preschooler likely doesn’t recognise that she has abilities related to math and engineering. Maybe they insist on helping with making dinner every night. It is unlikely, however, that they see themselves as a budding chef.
You might observe your children engaging in these activities and not think of them as talent either. After all, that little singer might be off-key, or the block structure might have collapsed with just a tiny bump from an elbow, or your newly mopped kitchen floor is now covered with spilt flour and milk. However, your child’s abilities and talents need time and opportunities to develop. Even the most accomplished athletes, musicians and artists didn’t come into the world with fully-developed talents. They needed practice. They needed opportunities to experiment. And yes, they even needed opportunities to experience failure and then to grow from those experiences.
While you might have been the star football player on your school team or earned that prestigious first chair position in the community orchestra, your child may struggle as an athlete or have little ability to match a pitch. As much as we’d love to see our children follow in our footsteps, it’s more important to help them forge their own path.
Everyone needs opportunities to practice a skill for that skill to become a refined talent. Olympic gymnasts who make their complex acrobatics look easy likely spent 10 years or longer practising several hours a day to perfect those skills. They became bruised, experienced injury, fell, and perhaps even got frustrated enough to want to leave the sport, but ultimately, they persisted in practising and refining.
Perhaps more important is to give your child room to learn from their failures. Maybe their cake didn’t rise. Help your child work through the process, recalling each step to try to determine what caused the fallen cake. Perhaps she didn’t get a spot on the football team. Ask her what she thinks she needs to work on to land a spot next year and have her develop an action plan to work towards her goal.
It can be tempting to take our children’s “failures” personally. After all, we may have spent a small fortune in lessons and given up several hours to watch our child’s meet only to see him or her place dead last. Rather than chastising your child on that last place, focus on the positive. “Wow, you really nailed that roundoff back handspring on the balance beam! I know you’ve been working hard on it all season” can be more encouraging to your child than “what on earth happened today?!”
Rather than lavishing praise on your child for earning a gold medal or a blue ribbon and expressing disappointment when awards aren’t earned, let your child know that you love to watch her play or perform. That takes the focus away from participating in an activity simply to collect trophies and accolades and instead shifts it to participating for enjoyment, learning and growth.
Encouraging your child to set goals, learn from setbacks, and using those setbacks to develop new goals is important in nurturing your child’s unique abilities. It teaches your child that setbacks are part of the process and are opportunities for growth.
Children with a growth mindset are more likely to believe they can improve and succeed even if their previous attempts didn’t end as such. In contrast, children with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their skills will never improve regardless of their effort.
Dr Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and faculty member at Florida State University, has spent years studying the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expertise. Dr Ericsson’s research is in contrast to the idea that the most successful people are simply “blessed” with extraordinary ability. However, as Dr Ericsson’s research illustrates, nobody is born with expert ability and skills. Every expert and every person with the exceptional talent required intense and deliberate practice.
This is not to say that you need to force your child to sit through three hours of piano practice a day or all will be lost. It’s actually quite the opposite. Rather than the quantity of practice, have your child focus on the quality of practice.
Establish goals that are reasonable and measurable. Rather than allowing your child’s goal to be “I want to be a better gymnast”, encourage specific goals like “I want to be able to perform a standing back tuck on the floor in one year” or “I want to earn at least a 9.0 on all events by the end of this season”.
Focus on improvement during practice and not simply practising because you have to. Sometimes this means practising the same skill 100 times. Sometimes it means playing a single measure of a piano piece over and over, increasing speed each time.
Ask for immediate feedback on performances. Have your child ask a coach, teacher, or mentor about how the performance went and how close your child is to achieving his goal.
Move out of your comfort zone. This is incredibly important for skill and talent development. Sometimes, growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes, the risk of failure is high. But moving beyond what is easy and comfortable is the best chance to grow and learn.
As your child begins really refining his or her talents, it can be easy for them to get caught up in the stress or pressure of performing or winning. The hours of practice, day after day, for years has the potential to lead to burn-out or high levels of stress. It is essential to help your child learn to protect his or her mental health. Pursuing other hobbies and activities is healthy. It is even ok to miss a practice and take the day to relax, recharge, and catch up with friends.
Striking a balance between nurturing talent and participating in other activities is important. The pressure to win and succeed can be detrimental to a child’s mental health. While it is important to encourage learning, growth, and deliberate practice, it is just as important to encourage balance and self-care.
Above all, the most important part of helping your child discover and nurture his or her special abilities is to enjoy the journey. The road to success can be filled with potholes, certainly, but your child’s journey is unique. Along the way, he or she will likely meet tutors, mentors, and coaches that will change your child’s life. Perhaps you will find one here. Above all, your child will develop their passion and drive. And as a parent, these are some of the most important dreams we can have for our children.
Author Bio: Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.